Deirdre Cooper Owens

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In Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology, Owens argues that the emergence, practice, and professionalization of American gynecology in the 19th century were inextricably enmeshed with the institution of slavery and discourses of biological racism. “Modern American gynecology,” writes Owens, “could certainly exist without slavery, but slavery’s existence allowed for the rapid development of this branch of medicine, and especially of gynecological surgery” (6). As she shows, gynecology developed as quickly as it did only because white American physicians had access to women’s bodies marked as racially inferior. That gynecology’s maturation accelerated in the American South is no indication that its practitioners had a humane interest in enslaved women’s health (66). On the contrary. Owens argues that slave owners were invested in maintaining the reproductive health of enslaved women in the interest of increasing the size of their population: “Thus the repair of any medical condition that could render an otherwise healthy slave woman incapable of bearing children further strengthened the institution of slavery” (39). Additionally, there were broader implications, as medical research using enslaved women’s bodies produced knowledge about how to treat, in turn, white women: “Black lives mattered medically because they made white lives healthier and better” (107).

This leads Owens to argue why enslaved women should be esteemed as the maternal counterparts to the oft-celebrated white ‘fathers’ of American gynecology: “. . . black women, especially those who were enslaved, can arguably be called the ‘mothers’ of this branch of medicine because of the medical roles they played as patients, plantation nurses, and midwives. Their bodies enabled the research that yielded the data for white doctors to write medical articles about gynecological illnesses, pharmacology, treatments, and cures” (25). This is especially true, as she points out, when examining the medical research of the lauded gynecologist, James Marion Sims, who opened and operated a “sick house” for enslaved women suffering from gynecological ailments (36). Sims operated this clinic to devise a surgical solution to a serious and commonplace gynecological issue among enslaved women, vesico-vaginal fistulae. As an enterprising young physician, Sims took advantage of enslaved women’s bodies to conduct his surgical trials. Eventually, he triumphed and cured an enslaved woman, and published the results in a respected medical journal, thus enshrining his reputation (39). The point, Owen emphasizes, is that “[t]hanks in large part to his experimentation on enslaved black women, Sims had established himself as one of the country’s preeminent gynecological surgeons less than a decade after he began his gynecological career” (39). Medical Bondage thus strives, in part, to restore the lives and contributions of these enslaved women to the story of American gynecology’s genesis.

Owens’ study takes a surprising turn, arguing that “. . . the later development of modern American gynecology can no more be disentangled from Irish immigration than it can be separated from its roots in slavery” (90). This shift in racial and geographic focus parallels the similar roles of enslaved black women of the South and poor, immigrant Irish women of the urban North in the development of gynecology. Owens shows how racial alterity was “mapped onto” poor Irish immigrant women living in major urban centers, such as New York City (20). As many Irish immigrant women suffered poverty, inadequate (if any) medical care, sexual assault, and were drawn into prostitution (and the attendant onslaught of venereal diseases), they became ideal medical subjects for gynecologists. Physicians eventually published their Irish patient case studies, which “. . . helped to create the foundation for the racist laws that colored the Irish as not quite white and sometimes placed them alongside black people as biological models for racial inferiority” (90). Just as Southern gynecologists had access to enslaved women’s bodies, their Northern counterparts treated and experimented on racially othered immigrant women. In this way, Owens argues, “[t]he scientific and medical beliefs that doctors held about Irish women were nearly indistinguishable to [sic] those they held about African women” (115). Overall, Medical Bondage articulates a well-researched and sobering retelling of the dominant accounts of American gynecology.

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